Lean in. Have it all. Burn your bra. How semantics have taken over the women’s movement

Years from now, will they ask: What glass ceiling?
Years from now, will they ask: What glass ceiling?
Image: Getty Images/ Scott Olson
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The Sheryl Sandberg media blitz has begun. The Facebook chief operating officer’s book, Lean In, isn’t even out for another three weeks, but the front page of the New York Times sowed seeds for the backlash surely to come:

…no one knows whether women will show up for Ms. Sandberg’s revolution, a top-down affair propelled by a fortune worth hundreds of millions on paper, or whether the social media executive can form a women’s network of her own.

Essentially, Sandberg is being attacked for leading a movement for the privileged. It’s easy from her perch to tell women to “lean in” to their careers (as opposed to stepping back) when she has household help and financial security, a wealth adviser and a friendship with Oprah Winfrey. Instead, Sandberg should focus her energies on changing the patriarchal institutions that hold women back. Or so her opponents say.

Less noticed this week was another media campaign launched by another feminist icon. The day before the Times story, Gloria Steinem took out a half-page ad in the paper urging the New York City Council to pass paid sick leave for workers. In an interview, Steinem threatened to rescind support of mayoral candidate Christine Quinn if she doesn’t back the proposal, which would require small business to give at least five sick days a year to employees. It’s an endorsement Quinn, the council speaker, cannot afford to take lightly as she seeks to be New York City’s first female mayor.

“Making life fairer for all women seems more important than breaking a barrier for one woman,” Steinem said.

Two feminist icons: One launched a revolution from the pages of Msmagazine in the 1970s. The other by making a climb through the clubby male-dominated world of Silicon Valley. Essentially, women today are being told to choose between the two camps: fight the system or work within it.

But our realities—just like the homes, offices, families, colleagues and commitments to both we juggle—are hardly such an either-or proposition. Coverage of Sandberg thus far loves to pit her against Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor who famously can’t have it all. She has said Sandberg holds women to unfair standards and doesn’t demand the same of the employers that make balance so impossible.

Such framing is oversimplistic and hardly productive. Are we really to believe that a world where women run companies and still get paid if they or their kid get sick is so unattainable? And don’t each of those successes rest upon the other? If anything, the various camps of feminism need to embrace each other amid stagnant workforce participation among American women. Both sides can surely agree that the one thing worse than women who can’t have it all are those who have nothing.